For many people across the world, religious and spiritual values inform the living of their daily lives. Rather than disappearing, the role of religion and religiously inspired political activists appears to be ever more important factors in global politics in the Twenty-First Century, especially with regards to the complex challenges in the Gulf-MENA region. Yet at the same time, it is a factor that is often ignored, misrepresented or misunderstood. Existing approaches to diplomacy, particularly in Europe, have been said to either downplay the relevance of religion or to approach religion as a problem to be managed and solved. The risk is that such limited understandings of the significance of religion leads to misinformed policymaking with damaging consequences.

In response, Forward Thinking in co-operation with the Swedish Institute in Alexandria facilitated a high-level roundtable discussion, “Perspectives on the Role of Religion in Diplomacy, Foreign Policy and International Affairs” to discuss these challenges between the 17-19 of November in Byblos Lebanon. It facilitated a conversation around religious literacy and diplomacy; explored perspectives on the accommodation of religious and non-religious worldviews in society; and had a practical focus on raising awareness and increasing understanding of these complex issues in order to inform policy-making. Discussions built on a report that was produced in March 2017 by the Helsinki Policy Forum, “Discussion Papers: Religious Literacy, Foreign Policy & Diplomacy”, and participants were drawn from a diverse range of backgrounds – including parliamentarians and political leaders, government officials and experts in the field – thereby ensuring the variety of perspectives from Europe, the Gulf, Middle East and North Africa (Gulf-MENA) were fully represented.

Discussions were diverse and covered an array of issues. However consensus formed on a number of key issues including:

Religious illiteracy fuels tensions and conflict. The mistakes that are made by policymakers are often through ignorance not intent but still have a devastating consequences for those that are effected. A common mistake stems from viewing religious communities in monolithic terms and in failing to acknowledge their diverse and fluid nature. Accordingly, there is an urgent need to counter this through education and increased dialogue at all levels between and within communities.

Discussions at the roundtable

Discussions at the roundtable

Policymakers were also acknowledged to adopt a universal approach to freedom of belief and religious rights. Concerns were raised that emphasising the rights of only one group – for example European policymakers focusing on the rights of Christian minorities in the MENA region – can feed perceptions of division and thereby increase polarisation.  Instead, policymakers were urged to recognise that the best guarantee for religious freedoms is to adopt approaches which emphasise universal values and avoid partial approaches.